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Filled with Curiosity

Nicole Hams likes to ask, “What if?”

If a cat can have nine lives, why not a scientist? Nicole Hams has already had several. She has dived into nitrogen fixation, coral reef biology, fuel cells, fish health and protein chemistry. And she’s just getting started.

“My mind doesn’t necessarily sit still. I’m not afraid to be working on a lot of different things,” says Hams. As a recently graduated doctoral student in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, she published a paper in 2017 on otoferlin, a protein critical for human hearing, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Hiking and archery are two of Nicole Hams’ passions. “Science is great, but you can’t do it 24/7. You need ways to clear your mind.” (Photo: Chris Becerra)

Currently, Hams is a post-doc in the Department of Microbiology with professor and department head Jerri Bartholomew. Her project focuses on a parasitic disease in Klamath River salmon, specifically identifying extracellular proteins involved in the ability of the parasite, Ceratomyxa shasta, to sense salmonids.

It’s a journey a less resilient person might not have taken. When she was 14, Hams approached a high school guidance counselor about graduating early. The counselor laughed. “That interaction was the first time I realized sometimes what you don’t get can motivate you,” says Hams. “I got mad. I took college classes at night and went to summer school. With moral and financial help from my mom and zero help from that counselor, I graduated from high school at 15.”

A determined personality and a tendency to follow light-bulb ideas comes with risks, she says, especially if the academic clock is ticking away, but the benefits are worth it. “I’m a wannabe engineer. I like to tinker. In my graduate project, I applied techniques that I had learned at an undergraduate summer engineering research experience. It reinforced that it’s OK to be curious.”

Homeschooled as a child in the rural Washington community of Summit south of Seattle, Hams loved to roam the woods. On family camping trips, she recalls setting out on her own with a compass and a dose of wanderlust. She still finds time to hunt and spend time in the woods with her two dogs, activities that round out her life in science and connect her with other people.

Despite her accomplishments, Hams finds her greatest satisfaction in networking, learning about people and helping other students. For example, she is developing a two-part STEM literacy program for high school students in Linn and Benton counties. Students will have the opportunity to explore research at OSU for a day while they learn about the scientific process. Afterwards, they will have the option of putting together a research proposal to compete for a scholarship.

“When you are a research scientist, you spend a lot of time amassing knowledge and sharing that info with others in your field,” she says. “But, it’s important to remember to take time to interact and share your expertise with people outside of your field. It’s hard to communicate — your science or otherwise — with others when you only interact with people from your scientific field. At the end of the day, if you diversify your circle, you will diversify your thought process.”

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.

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